IRONTON — Spring Green has the House on the Rock, Milwaukee has the Pabst Mansion and Prairie du Chien, Villa Louis.
And now our state, at least for the next eight days, can lay claim to another one-of-a-kind dwelling.
The Dumpling House consists of a plywood frame covered with plastic and sits under a stand of pines in a valley along Jessop Road, a few miles northwest of Ironton in rural Sauk County. The roughly 16-foot by 20-foot by 8-foot high-domed structure was designed and constructed by a pair of Minnesota artists who combined their love of architecture and food to create a unique destination for Fermentation Fest, a 10-day celebration of rural culture.
The house has a kitchen where, using butane stoves and locally sourced meats and produce, visitors can learn how to make a variety of dumplings packed with ingredients like beef, chicken, kale, onions, peppers and kohlrabi.
We’re not talking about globs of Bisquick floating in chicken soup.
“That’s kind of the outlier dumpling,” said Molly Balcom Raleigh, who studied dumpling making in 2010 in Shanghai, China. “Dumplings are universal. I have successfully found a dumpling in every cuisine I’ve looked at.”
Fermentation Fest, billed as a “live culture convergence,” is in its third year and includes farmers, artists, chefs, cheesemakers, poets and storytellers.
There are classes where students can learn how to make sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Others explore how to raise chickens in a backyard, make wine and beer, raise worms, can pickles and bake rye sourdough breads. Wisconsin’s poet laureate, Max Garland, will be on hand while Nikiko Masumoto, an agrarian artist and storyteller, will help students create short stories about a memorable experience in a kitchen.
The festival, which began Friday and concludes Oct. 13, is spread out at dozens of locations on a circular route that connects Reedsburg,
La Valle, Ironton and Lime Ridge. The event is the creation of the Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit located northeast of Reedsburg, founded in 2000 by Jay Salinas and Donna Neuwirth. The mission of the institute is to explore “the links between urban and rural communities within and beyond the food chain.”
In its second year, in 2012, Fermentation Fest drew an estimated 8,400 people. Neuwirth is expecting between 10,000 and 12,000 this year.
“The local food movement has made people much more curious and interested and invested in where their food comes from,” Neuwirth said. “The culture in agriculture is something that has gotten a little lost in agribusiness and we’re bringing the culture back.”
That’s what brought Balcom Raleigh and Emily Stover, who designs small mobile kitchens, to apply and eventually secure a $4,500 grant to build the Dumpling House. It includes a large communal table where strangers can work side by side learning from one another.
Remarkably, the entire structure was designed and built in St. Paul, then taken apart and somehow wedged into a Honda CRV for its more than 200-mile southeastern trek. And, in true rural fashion where neighbors help neighbors (or in this case Minnesotans), the women got a big assist from Dennis Hahn, who offered up his bucket truck from the Den Mar Sign Corp., which has a shop in Lime Ridge.
They connected Tuesday night at the Branding Iron Roadhouse, located across the street from the sign shop. The artists were wondering out loud how to finish the house when Hahn made his offer. Hahn’s generosity is a welcome piece of character for the house, which is designed to resemble a dumpling.
“It seems like it’s out of place here but at the same time it’s so of the place,” Stover said of the Dumpling House that overlooks farm fields and trees in the midst of fall change. “This is where we envisioned it. This is exactly how we envisioned it.”
The Branding Iron Roadhouse is more permanent and unexpected.
It’s a year-round stop for those fond of local foods and craft beer and is operated by Lisa Buttonow, a Long Island, N.Y., native. The former accountant, in 2008, fell in love with Steve Fearing, 56, a beef farmer who has lived his whole life in and around Lime Ridge.
Since May 2011, two years after losing her corporate job, Buttonow, along with Fearing, has owned and operated the Roadhouse.
This is where she uses a combination of ground chuck, sirloin and round from Fearing’s red Angus livestock to create thick, juicy 6-ounce hamburgers that typically require five napkins.
“Steve and I have been enjoying it so much, just the community that’s involved,” Buttonow said. “The quality of our products speaks for itself. We love good beer, we love good food. It’s an unbeatable combination.”
Toppings include medium cheddar and blue cheese from the Carr Valley Cheese plant up the road and tomatoes from local gardens.
The hamburger buns come from Esther’s, an Amish bakery near La Valle. Some of Fearing’s herd grazes just a few hundred yards from the restaurant, but most are pastured on his farm north of Lime Ridge. Chant, a llama with a kick, earns her keep by keeping dogs and coyotes away from the cattle, which are pasture-raised.
“They’re calm cattle,” Fearing said. “I think you get better meat that way.”
All six taps at the Roadhouse feature Wisconsin beer from breweries like 3 Sheeps Brewing Co. in Sheboygan, Potosi Brewing Co., Sprecher in Milwaukee and, of course, Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing Co.
On Thursday, the Roadhouse will host, as part of Fermentation Fest, “All Things Beer.” The two-hour event will feature local home brewer Jim Kinsman, who will help students differentiate an ale from a lager and pair beers with foods like corned beef, pickles, chocolate and cheese.
This is the first year the Roadhouse, which occasionally brings in guest chefs, has hosted a Fermentation Fest event but likely not the last. The fest serves as a way to expose more people to the region and will help businesses throughout the area, Buttonow, 47, said.
“I just see it getting better and better,” she said. “It brings people and they get to see how beautiful this place is. I think it’s only going to get bigger.”